reviewed by Eric Ellis
While Mark Bowden’s Life Sentence is frequently described as a chronicle of the rise and fall of Montana Barronette, AKA Tana, while ruling the illicit drug markets of Sandtown, a violent Baltimore, Maryland neighborhood, it is also a social critique upon the too often found harsh life found within depressed and poor inner-city enclaves.
In returning to Sandtown, Bowden revisits a neighborhood previously examined in both the non-fiction writings of David Simon (Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets) and Justin Fenton (We Own This City), and of dramatized television programs based upon Sandtown (The Corner, The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street and We Own This City). Bowden also returns to the real-life characters previously mentioned in those non-fiction works and to fictional characters in the dramatizations inspired by these works.
In Life Sentence, Barronette and his brother lead a relatively small group of drug peddlers that rule with a level of violence even more callous than in the past. Violent acts are no longer doled out just as a matter of doing business but in a way to deal with the slightest acts of disrespect and insult.
Bowden’s book details the 2016 investigation and eventual prosecution of Barronette, his brother, and their gang known as “Trained To Go” (TTG) after the group finally gathers the attention of the FBI after years of flying under their radar.
Not only does Bowden follow those of TTG, but he also provides a fascinating backstory on the development of Baltimore, the emergence of crime and violence, and a social critique of why little changes in urban environments in places like Sandtown when it comes to poverty, drugs, and crime.
After reading numerous non-fiction books by Mark Bowden, I have yet to read one that has poor research or is unable to hold my interest, with Life Sentence continuing that streak.
Life Sentence reads like an extra episode to HBO’s The Wire and is encouraged reading for those interested in gritty, true-crime accounts of people and situations in urban settings. Grove Atlantic provided an advanced readers copy for review and is available for purchase.